North Belfast Housing Spotlight

North Belfast Housing

Mandy McAuley reports on a deal over a multi-million pound project at Girdwood in North Belfast, and asks at what price it has been struck.

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A groundbreaking political deal on Girdwood has been made public,


ending years of stalemate in North Belfast. There has always been a


vision for Girdwood to be a shared site with a variety of different


uses on it. What we now have is an greed plan in the way forward in


that regard. This site is a great opportunity for regeneration.


This's going to happen. There is all party agreement from North


Belfast. A vast piece of land that has been left untouched for the


past six years is to be transformed into a world-class community


development of business, culture and tourism. 27 acres of shared


space in an area devastated by some of the worse sectarian violence of


the Troubles. The Girdwood deal has been heralded as a political rye


triumph here. Evidence that the main parties in government have


finally left sectarian politics in the past and are now committed to


working together towards a shared future. That shared future does not


include shared housing. Homes built for Catholics and Protestants here


will be more than a quarter of a mile apart, on opposite ends of the


site. What's happening here has nothing to do with bringing


Protestants and Roman Catholics together. It an exercise where they


can door knock and the DUP can say to their people, we got house there


is. Sinn Fein can say, we got houses there. Housing has always


been the deal breaker on this site. So why has agreement been reached


now? The answer is money. The chance of �10 million European


grant for Girdwood is about to run out. There has been pressure to


come up with a deal ahead of the deadline. Tonight, we can reveal


that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the body set up 41 years


ago, to ensure the fair allocation of houses here, has been completely


frozen out of the Girdwood deal. The housing executive has been one


of the great success stories of the last 40 years. Not least because it


embedded in our politics and public policy that housing needs informed


housing allocation. If that principle, or if that approach is


compromised, that should send out alarm bells. A former Chairman of


the Housing Executive say it is must be protected from political


interference. I have been disappointed by the lack of concern


there appears to be on the part of some political parties in defending


an organisation and a model which has been seen to work well in


Northern Ireland since its establishment in 1971. It's


absolutely fundamental to there being confidence in the delivery of


social housing in Northern Ireland that it should be based on need


rather than on some arcane territorial dispute. Yesterday,


politicians didn't want to talk about the number of houses they


have planned for the site. We can reveal that it falls far short of


the numbers recommended for Catholics in the area by the


Housing Executive, the decision raises difficult questions for


nationalist politician in the area, in particular Sinn Fein. I find it


inexplicable this a party like Sinn Fein, which talks about civil


rights and talk abouts equality and so on, is lying down on one of the


very basic issues that started the whole civil rights movement, which


was fair housing. The fact that Sinn Fein are agreing to a lot less


than what is needed, it is no not in their interest to do that,


indicates to me there is some deal The vast Girdwood site, on one of


the most bitterly contested peace lines in North Belfast. Six years


ago, the Ministry of Defence handed the former army barracks to the DSD,


the Department for Social Development, hoping a new use for


the land would transform an area plighted by sectarian conflict and


poverty. The plan has always been that the site would generate


millions of pounds and much-needed jobs for the area. We thought, this


is going to be a state-of-the-art development which will lift the


spirits and hopes of all the people of that part of the city. That was


the vision which lay behind. This we had seen what had happened down


by the Lagganside, the development changed that whole part of the city.


The Titanic quarter was being talked about. That was going to be


a transformtive development on the other side of the river. As part of


its shareded future initiative, the Stormont Executive insisted there


would be no funding for the scheme without agreement from both


communities. It would have to be a development as characterised as


being shared space, neutral space and people from both parties of the


community could buy into it. It would not be owned by one part of


the community to the exclusion of the other part of the community.


What prevented agreement for the last six years has been the issue


of housing. Catholics and Protestants in the area have


completely different housing needs. On the one side is a growing


Catholic community, in chronic need of new housing, but with little


available land to build on. On the other side, a declining Protestant


community that it says it is being left to decay and fears being


overrun on any site dominated by Catholics. Added to the mix,


decades of sectarian conflict in an area which has more interfaces than


anywhere else in Northern Ireland. It's not quite as easy as saying,


there is an empty bit of land, let's build houses there. There are


security issues, there are safety issues. There are strong senses of


allegiance to territory and to place. That is under pinned very


much by numerous security barriers, peace calls across the city which


make any form of housing, build, new build housing very difficult to


implement without, not only affecting the political geography,


but also the sectarian go geography. Sinn Fein is closing the gap on the


DUP majority in this constituency. There are fears that those in


desperate need of housing have been sacrificed in the battle for


political votes The Protestant population has been leaving North


Belfast for 30 years. The real issue is the constituency and the


votes. With the fact that they will not build houses for Catholics,


still the nationalist vote has increased. The nationalist


representation has increased. The fear of the unionist is that North


Belfast will become a Sinn Fein constituency. According to Housing


Executive figures, the clear majority of those who need to be


rehoused as a matter of urgent si of Belfast are from the nationalist.


Among them 60 young families. Connor and Elaine Matthews and


their children, all under ten, are one such family. They live in a two


up, two down house in the New Lodge have been on the waiting list for


two years. This is through into the kitchen? Yes. Not much space?


room at all. You have this tiny space at the back. Where do the


chin children play? They play in their room or the living room.


There is no other space for them to play. Shall we look at the


bedrooms? There is little prospect of the family being rehoused soon.


The house has single glaze tkwhraizing -- glazing and there


are signs of damp. In this first bedroom this is you and your


husband and Jennifer sleep. There is barely enough room to walk in


past this cot. There is not. Jennifer is ready to go into the


other room with the girls. Three girls in there? Yes. Why they need


a bigger house, in North Belfast 350 people are now living in hostel


accommodation, the majority in nation nags areas, while they wait


for a home of their own. James and his three-year-old twinnes had been


a hostel for almost two years. children were like nine months,


touching a year, so they were. When I went down to the Housing


Executive I said, we are on one couch. First I was in my brother's


house then we went to my mum's house. My mum had two bedrooms.


With the twins under a year, James assumed a host el -- hostle would


be a temporary arrangement. I was scared when I first came. I was


scared for the children. I really was. I didn't know who was going to


be around me. Maybe drug takers or alcohol people or, you know... I


didn't know what was going to be the score, like, when I went in


there. It was really frightening at first. I wasn't coming Ouattara my


front door just in case. After a while I noticed that people were OK.


In recent weeks, James has been allocated a home in a nearby


nationalist area. It will be more freedom, more space, yes. It's


fantastic. It really is. I was overjoyed when I got the letter


through, the offer through for the house. It was my last offer.I


looked at it and went, brilliant, absolutely fantastic. He is looking


forward to a new start for his children. In these streets, it's


not unusual for teenage brothers and sisters to grow up together


sharing one bedroom. I brought you round here because you can see the


density. Front doors are a few yards apart. There are no gardens.


These things were built above to stick in an extra bedroom. They are


on top of each other. It's frightening. This is as dense as it


gets. They are building mini blocks of flats in the middle of this.


That is the entire park for the kids in this area. We have no


ground that we can move to. Nowhere to build. No green spaces. We are


bursting at the seams. Housing executive figures show that over


90% of the new houses in North Belfast are needed by nationalist.


Nationalists hoped that need would be reflected in yesterday's


announcement, but actual housing figures were omitted. So far,


community representatives on both sides have not been given any


details of the deal. On this plan, there are two clearly marked


residential areas. One of those areas is here, on the nationalist


Antrim Road side of Girdwood a site which has capacity for 70 new


houses. Here, right at the other end of the site, just outside the


Girdwood boundary wall, on the unionist Clifton Park Avenue, a


site with a capacity for 30 new houses. Will there be enough


Protestants to fill those houses? Across the road from Girdwood,


Nelson McCausland, the Housing Minister and MLA for this area has


put in place a plan to build 45 new houses over the next three years in


the unionist Lower Oldpark as well as the refurbishment of 26 old


houses at a cost of �4 million. The Housing Executive figure show there


are three families in urgent need of housing in the Lower Oldpark.


His justification is that he is fulfill fulfilling that any deal


must go hand in hand with surrounding communities.


securing the regeneration of the deprived residential areas adjacent


to the site. There is a need to rebuild communities in that area. I


went to the Lower Oldpark and tried to develop the same for that area.


That was always to be consistent with the principle. It's the


principle that I think the vast majority will live up to. The


principle of housing need determines housing allocation. If


there is a genuine need for unionist housing that should be met.


If there is a greater genuine need for nationalist housing that should


be met. You cannot compromise those principles because they will


struggle for and are won and have served us well. Some suggest that


the Housing Minister's real commitment is to the repopulation


of the constituency with Protestant There is the politics of housing


which comes back to the symbolic need to maintain areas with


populations in them and also the political and voting demographics


of north Belfast. They come together which is the need for


putting houses in a world park and hoping you can get people to go in


and repopulate the airier and live there and stay there. You know the


area, do you think people will move back in? It does not had a strong


statement population four years. There is not a great demand at the


moment, that's not to say you could not manufacture a demand if the


houses come. The Housing Minister is now supporting an advertising


campaign to bring Protestants back to the low altar Park. Brochures


like this have been designed in a bid to persuade protestants on


waiting lists. -- to change their area of choice in order to help


repopulate here. It is looking at ways to repopulate the area, for


people to come back in, there is also a high waiting list in


surrounding areas on Shang call there. We are hoping to link into


that list to bring people back into the community. Senior officials


inside the Housing Executive have told us that while there is a


genuine need for some regeneration in the low old park it is hard to


justify it allocating so many new houses and an area where there is


so little me then that a time whether ministers budget has been


virtually halved. Brian Feeney, a historian and former SDLP


councillor in North Belfast, says is similar process failed during


the violence of the Troubles. He questions whether the housing


minister is correctly interpreting the commitment of the vision to


regeneration. 1986, when they were trying to build houses in almost


the same place, they could not gut -- get any candidates. There were


no takers. They could not anybody to come and live in houses -- get


anybody. The huge demand for housing is on the Catholic side and


building houses is not regeneration, it is naive to pretend to building


houses is regeneration. It is not just nationalists who doubt


Protestants will return to the area. Fred, a former Ulster Unionist


councillor and MLA agrees it is unlikely large numbers will come


back. This idea that somehow there will be a flood of Protestants


returning to North Belfast is nonsense. What is the sense in


banding and regenerating areas if people do not move back? There are


housing prices within Protestant communities and with in different


fields. Housing is a complicated issue. There are people living in


conditions that are not satisfying. You cannot subdivide a housing list


and a social need list into a party or voter list. You have to decide


who in this instance is most in need of a house. Who needs it more


than someone else? Sid says approving houses where there is no


proven need undermines the principle on which the housing


effective was established. should not be building houses where


there is not that proven need. One issue of concern is why is that


being done because resources are scarce? And if housing is not being


constructed in accordance with what is the proven strategic need


produced on a well established evidence based, that would be a


matter for examination because it would represent a nonsensical


expenditure of public funds. allocation of houses has historical


significance in Northern Ireland. Catholics have long protested over


discrimination. Fair distribution of public housing was one of the


key demands of the civil rights movement and led to the setting-up


of the current Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The hope was


that in establishing that the organisation we could bring


fairness to allocation of housing and also develop a more strategic


approach to the construction of housing in Northern Ireland. What


is the level of need in terms of the number of new homes required to


be constructed, then how do you allocate those homes? In 2011 did


then how he had approved plans to build 200 houses on dead wood, the


number recommended by the Housing Executive. Had these houses being


built and allocated on the basis of proven need? The vast majority


would have gone to Catholics. Four months later, when Nelson


McCausland became housing minister, he still the decision, citing the


stipulation of the Gurd would plan for the agreement of the Protestant


community next to the site. What is disturbing is that of all the


schemes in Northern Ireland in relation to housing this was the


only one remove from the programme by the minister and without


explanation. Many suspect his decision is based on political


prejudice, many suspect that, I hope not. However, on the face of


it the minister's decision is perverse. But the minister insisted


he was up holding the principle of a shared future for everyone in


north Belfast. However, it was the first time a housing minister here


had overturned a recommendation that a rising Executive involving


Did a Minister ever ignore the advice, or recommendation of the


Executive that had been made on objective proven need? No, the


position was that the government would establish the broad policy


which the expected the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to follow


but it was clearly recognised that the Northern Ireland Housing


Executive was the regional strategic housing authority,


therefore there was no role, no scope for any direct rule minister


to play any part in the question of determining need. There is no


question that the housing Executive and other bodies are under much


more pressure now than they wear under direct rule because under


direct rule there was a housing branch in the Northern Ireland


Office and that could always step in when pressure was put on by a


local MP, for example, but that is not happening any more because it


is local politicians who are carving up things to suit


themselves. But this is not a view shared by the DUP. It sees the


provision of housing in the areas as an essential part of


regenerating the Unionist community. Here in the low were called Park


the population has declined. Those left behind have found themselves


living behind boarded-up properties. Local residents insist new houses


are long overdue in an area that was decimated by the conflict and


then left to decay. What happened The area is now known as a Peace


Wall. There would have been a tax on individuals houses, this was at


the height of the Troubles. Families then started to move out,


they had Smalley and children and did not be faced with the danger.


Slowly but surely you would get one resident and then the houses


vandalised, not boarded up in time. The fear of the other community is


also are the heart of the dispute. For some Protestants the allocation


of a large number of houses to Catholics, albeit on proven need,


would be a threat to the survival of the community in the area. They


point to the near by a Torrens estate as an example of what they


believe could happen. 10 years ago the estate was a small Protestant


enclave surrounded by a growing nationalist population. The last a


distant family is left in 2004. Today it is predominantly Catholic.


Pete has worked with both communities here for many years.


One of the problems with a small population is it is hard to


reproduce itself because it becomes more elderly so there was a


demographic issue because of low birth rates. Some people did leave


because of intimidation, that is clear, some look for better housing


but there was intimidation, I do not think there was any doubt of


that. Four years later Torrance sparked a bitter debate.


departure of those folk was overseen by a Sinn Fein councillor


from north Belfast who was there as the workmen were put off the site


by Republicans when the work men attempted to put up a small fence


to protect those Protestant homes from serious and sustained


sectarian attack. I am disappointed Nelson McCausland sectarian eyes is


this issue. It is something that affects all the people in north


Belfast. For many the lesson of these areas is that they need of


families for homes cannot come before the consequences for


community relations of changing the population balance him bitterly


divided areas. However, the head of the equality commission is clear


about where the priority should live. A public body cannot height -


- hide behind promoting good relations in order to avoid a


quality duties. A unionist may feel alienated but the situation for us


would be in the allocation of houses anything other of need would


mean the housing allocated, whoever it is, would be in breach of their


statutory duty. Others argue cannot for the principle of equality ahead


of the reality of life on the ground in Northern Ireland. You can


only have proper air quality when you have built a society that is


fair, but has good relations. If people are afraid to live where


they want to live, that is not a quality. We understand the housing


deal being brokered is close to the DUP's desire to promote community


relations than for the desire of those who wish to see housing


allocated on the basis of proven need. Nevertheless, in the spirit


of something is better than nothing, nationalist parties appeared to


have signed up to the deal. But that has led to frustration among


some in the community. There is a general sense within the community


that 40 years plus after the advent of the civil rights movement that


they still feel they are being discriminated against. Unionist


politicians might congratulate themselves privately on a strategy


that is holding back some sort of green tide of republicanism,


nationalism and of Belfast. It is a narrow, short-term, dangerous


vision because it is entrenching sectarianism. What is to some


entrenching sectarianism is to some of reversing historic Unionist


decline. It is clear that since Nelson McCausland became housing


minister his interpretation of allocating houses has differed from


his predecessors. In the new large Carlisle area there are 165 cases


of urgent need amongst nationalists, the minister has allocated 35 new


homes here. In Cliftonville, where there are 170 cases, a has approved


just 18. -- he has approved. Of his interpretation of the proven need


real -- role in national areas has been frugal, has the almost


completely ignored it in other areas? The answer is used a special


provision to seek emergency of approval from Housing Executive for


the new houses in the lower old park on the basis of regeneration


without having to establish any proven need. There needs to be a


re-examination of the most urgent priority and that is the basis on


which expenditure decisions ought to be taken rather than some kind


of social engineering. Many nationalists are unhappy that the


principle of proven need is being disregarded but are very reluctant


We are extremely worried that if we don't agree to whatever is put in


front of us we will be seen to beholding back progress. That is


not the case. This is about fairness. This is about equality


and social justice. We are not saying who is going to Girdwood or


any side we identify. We are saying, there is a housing issue there, we


have the biggest waiting list in the North, we want to address it.


It doesn't mat is on that waiting list. The bottom line in North


Belfast is about voting and political geography. Over the last


two elections you have seen the Sinn Fein proportion in the


Westminster elections rise in comparison to the DUP vote. You


can't get away from the fact that housing is linked to politics.


Housing is linked to the power balance between Sinn Fein and the


DUP. Politicians say they are buying into a shared future in


North Belfast. The equality commission says it's keeping a


watching brief on how events unfold in relation to housing. What I can


say very simply is, equality isn't one for you, one for me. We have


never said that. If anyone feels they have been discriminated


against as a result of a an application of a policy, they would


need to take forward a complaint to the quality commission. We would


investigate it and if there were grounds we look into it. Last night,


the Housing Executive had not been officially informed about the


detail in the Girdwood deal. A figure within the Housing Executive


told Spotlight it was almost beyond belief that no-one was willing or


brave enough to put the plans in front of them. Officials have told


us they are extremely concerned about the Housing Minister's


decision to spend millions of pounds in an area where there is


not enough depanned. They say they could be disciplined if they speak


publicly. Both Sinn Fein and the DUP are vocal about their desire


for a shared future. They have failed to translate that vision


into people living together on Girdwood. John Dunlop says people


will only live together if politic particulars -- politicians lead the


way. We need to get from politicians is leadership. If


leadership is being shown from the top. If this kind of vision of a


shared future is being driven by people in leadership roles it will


have an effect on the ground. Fein is the same as the DUP rule.


They are in a difficult position. The enormity of that difficulty is


that neither of them actually believes in the share future.


Neither of them agrees on the definition of a shared future.


the DUP and Sinn Fein declined to take part in this programme. In


statements they both emphasised that the grid grid deal achieved


all part agreement. Sinn Fein said housing should be allocated on


basis of need and responsibility for implement that policy resting


with the Housing Executive. Nelson McCausland is about to announce the


Mandy McAuley reports on a deal over a multi-million pound project at Girdwood in North Belfast, and asks at what price has it been struck?

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